Chapter XLIV: The Shadow of Death

Ezra, leaning back in his chair with the firelight flickering over his haggard but still handsome face, looked across at his father with a puzzled expression. He had never yet been able to determine whether the old man was a consummate hypocrite or a religious monomaniac. Burt lay with his feet in the light of the fire and his head sunk back across the arm of the chair, fast asleep and snoring loudly.

“Isn’t it time to wake him up?” Ezra asked, interrupting the reading.

“Yes, I think it is,” his father answered, closing the sacred volume reverently and replacing it in his bosom.

Ezra took up the candle and held it over the sleeping man. “What a brute he looks!” he said. “Did ever you see such an animal in your life?”

The navvy was certainly not a pretty sight. His muscular arms and legs were all a-sprawl and his head hung back at a strange angle to his body, so that his fiery red beard pointed upwards, exposing all the thick sinewy throat beneath it. His eyes were half open and looked bleared and unhealthy, while his thick lips puffed out with a whistling sound at every expiration. His dirty brown coat was thrown open, and out of one of the pockets protruded a short thick cudgel with a leaden head.

John Girdlestone picked it out and tried it in the air. “I think I could kill an ox with this,” he said.

“Don’t wave it about my head,” cried Ezra. “As you stand in the firelight brandishing that stick in your long arms you are less attractive than usual.”

John Girdlestone smiled and replaced the cudgel in the sleeper’s pocket. “Wake up, Burt,” he cried, shaking him by the arm. “It’s half-past eight.”

The navvy started to his feet with an oath and then fell back into his chair, staring round him vacantly, at a loss as to where he might be. His eye fell upon the bottle of Hollands, which was now nearly empty, and he held out his hand to it with an exclamation of recognition.

“I’ve been asleep, guv’nor,” he said hoarsely. “Must have a dram to set me straight. Did you say it was time for the job.”

“We have made arrangements by which she will be out by the withered oak at nine o’clock.”

“That’s not for half an hour,” cried Burt, in a surly voice. “You need not have woke me yet.”

“We’d better go out there now. She may come rather before the time”

“Come on, then!” said the navvy, buttoning up his coat and rolling a ragged cravat round his throat. “Who is a-comin’ with me?”

“We shall both come,” answered John Girdlestone firmly. “You will need help to carry her to the railway line.”

“Surely Burt can do that himself,” Ezra remarked. “She’s not so very heavy.”

Girdlestone drew his son aside. “Don’t be so foolish, Ezra,” he said. “We can’t trust the half-drunken fellow. It must be done with the greatest carefulness and precision, and no traces left. Our old business watchword was to overlook everything ourselves, and we shall certainly do so now.”

“It’s a horrible affair!” Ezra said, with a shudder. “I wish I was out of it.”

“You won’t think that to-morrow morning when you realize that the firm is saved and no one the wiser. He has gone on. Don’t lose sight of him.”

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